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Page last updated at 08:48 GMT, Monday, 11 May 2009 09:48 UK

Australia fire warnings defended

Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees on 11/5/09
The official warnings clearly... were very, very close to the actual events
Russell Rees
Country Fire Authority chief

Australian fire officials have been defending warnings given to the public ahead of the deadliest bushfires in the country's history.

On the first day of an inquiry into the February fires, Country Fire Authority chief Russell Rees said, "as best as possible", the warnings were adequate.

The commission had heard that the path of one fire was predicted hours before residents were warned of the threat.

More than 170 people died in what is called the Black Saturday bushfires.

Some 2,000 homes were destroyed by the blazes.

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A two-minute silence for the victims of the fires was held before the Royal Commission in Melbourne got under way.

Then the inquiry turned its attention to the question of whether people had been given adequate warnings about the speed and intensity of the blazes.

It has already emerged from a preliminary hearing that the alert system could not keep pace with the speed of the fires, the BBC's Nick Bryant in Sydney says.

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Aerial footage of fire devastation in February

The commission heard about one fire bearing down on the town of Kinglake on 7 February.

The fire was reported at just before midday, but it was nearly 1800 before an official urgent threat warning was issued for the residents.

The fire hit at 1830, killing 42 people.

"The official warnings clearly... were very, very close to the actual events... the time frames are very, very tight in getting the information and the issuing of warnings," Russell Rees was quoted by The Age newspaper as saying.

The inquiry also heard that a fire danger index measuring the risk of bushfires was 328 - anything over 50 is considered extreme.

Mr Rees explained that this information was not communicated to the public because it was thought too complicated.

"Only in the sense that to understand the figures... you need to understand what they mean, so there needs to be an education process," he said.

The terms "low", "moderate" and "extreme" risk were used instead.

Mr Rees also said fire sirens were not used to alert residents, because they are "not a warning mechanism for the public".

One area the commission is due to focus on is whether to bring in mandatory evacuations similar to those in other fire-prone countries.

But the proposed change would meet fierce opposition in bushland communities, our correspondent says.

The hearing continues.



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